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Lion

Rating: 3.5

February 24, 2017

Cast: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Priyanka Bose, Sunny Pawar, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui

Director: Garth Davis

There is a portion in Lion, the Oscar-nominated drama starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, that stands out more than others. It’s a scene in which Saroo, a five-year-old boy separated from his family, finds himself at Calcutta Railway Terminus, nearly a thousand miles away from his home. Shunted by strangers who have no patience to hear him out, he climbs a pole hoping to spot a familiar face in the crowd. The sight that awaits him – and us – is chilling. For as far as the eye can reach, there is a swarm of busy commuters, a jungle of unknown adults. The cinematic depiction of that knee-high child lost in the big world is overwhelming to say the least. It is in that moment that the reality of his situation truly sinks in.

Lion, as you probably know, is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, who was adopted by a loving couple in Australia after he lost his way and became estranged from his mother and his home in a small village in Madhya Pradesh.

Dev Patel plays the grown up Saroo, and it’s a genuinely affecting performance. In fact, it’s Dev Patel’s most mature performance. In his late twenties, Saroo became obsessed with finding his real family, and those portions that show us the internal conflict he is wrestling with are very effectively conveyed by the actor.

But to be fair, Dev Patel and everyone else in the film – which includes Nicole Kidman as Saroo’s adoptive mother and Rooney Mara as his supportive girlfriend – are completely overshadowed by Sunny Pawar, the child actor who plays the young Saroo. He’s a real find, and it completely breaks your heart to see him go through those harrowing experiences when he’s first lost on the mean streets of Calcutta.

The middle portion of the film certainly feels a little bit flabby and repetitive, especially Saroo’s obsessive search – using Google Earth – to find the one train station out of thousands in India that will match with a childhood memory. It’s a fascinating process, although not as visually or emotionally compelling as everything that comes before…and after.

As an Indian, watching Lion there are bound to be a few things that will rankle you. Uncomfortable truths that cut close to the bone – the depiction of a general apathy towards the poor, the ugly reality of child abuse, and that ‘white saviour’ element to the story. But it is to director Garth Davis’ credit that even in its bleakest moments the film seldom feels exploitative or gratuitous. Unlike so many Hollywood films or foreign films set in India, it is attentive to poverty and destitution without fetishising it.

What it doesn’t hold back on is wringing every available drop of emotion from the big pay-off in the end. Because it’s a true story you know where things are heading, but in no way does that lessen the impact of this film that so effectively addresses themes of loss, love, and our understanding of family.

I was sobbing by the end, and I think you will be too. I’m going with three and a half out of five for Lion.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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